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Review: Lenin in Zurich

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Lenin in Zurich originated as a spin off compilation of "knots" that formed the core of his final project, The Red Wheel, a series of books about the fall of the czar's regime and the rise of the Soviet State.

What are "knots"? They seem to be narrative focal points that Solzehenitsyn deemed critical to his historial/fictional style of writing, which he didn't willingly subjugate to the term "novel."

In this case, Solzhenitsyn had written some knots about Lenin, found himself an exile in Zurich, and decided he would expand the knots to form, more or less, a novel about Lenin's time in Zurich just before entering the famous closed train that returned him to the Russia and the revolution he ultimately dominated.

The book--let's call it that--is a psychological study of Lenin as a frustrated emigre revolutionary who had missed the action in the abortive Revolution of 1905 and finds himself holed up in Zurich, willfully keeping pace with his revolutionary monomania by writing, reading, and corresponding with other revolutionary socialists, ultimately to be known as communists.

Here's a taste of it: "His whole career, twenty-three years of uninterupted militant campaigning against political stupidity, vulgarity, opportunism, his whole grim life uner a constant hail of hatred, had brought him--what? Only isolation."

Sometimes the narrative moves along as an interior monologue, sometimes scenes are remembered, full of dialogue and scheming, sometimes Lenin allows himself a drop or two of nostalgia about losing touch with the woman he loved, Inessa Armand.

But what's really important about the book is the portrait of Lenin's relentless determination to expose soft revolutionaries (those who would not start with violence and emphasize violence in revolution above all other initial measures) and  bring down the czar.

How does one survive decades of failed conferences, idiotic alliances, betrayals, theoretical debates, detailed research into the history of revolution, and so forth? Well, one has to be relatively iron-willed and not a little monomaniacal.

There's little evidence I know of that contradicts Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Lenin.  He was a bully and a schemer who reminds me of the negotiating style of one Washington potentate I knew: you get your way in a negotiation by being the first to break it off...as soon as possible...and making the other party come back to you in astonishment, asking why you did that.

The almost unimaginable horror Lenin, followed by Stalin, unleashed on the Russian people, isn't really present in the book because it ends before he takes power, but there's no mistaking his belief in violence, his constant counsel and measuring stick.  Are you willing to shoot, club, start fires, bomb, and create mayhem?  If not, goodbye. If so, let's conspire together.

In a way it was an odd approach, given Lenin's basic nature as an intellectual, not a hunter, a fighter himself, or anything of the sort, but he had come to this conclusion intellectually, and it is a constant theme throughout Solzhenitsyn's book.

Of course Solzhenitsyn, who suffered under communism, must have hated Lenin, and yet with artistic fortitude and imagination, grounded in substantial research, he portrays the bald little man with the slits for eyes with compelling fidelity and in disturbing detail.   This is something of a Shakespearian or Dostoevskian performance: the man you loathe is as interesting a literary subject to you as the man you love.

What "we literary types" and many "journalistic types," too, often lack is an appreciation for politics as endless, grubby, conversation-by-conversation, argument-by-argument, failure-by-failure work.  Solzhenitsyn excels here in decompressing the refined image of Lenin at the barricades and letting us see his endlessly disciplined, boring, often fruitless efforts to get to those barricades.  He does it by staying so close to this repugnant man, mastering his twisted relations with his fellow revolutionaries and rivals, and recreating an epoch that, until it occurred, seemed like it might never occur--that instead of the barbaric thing that became Soviet communism might have taken shape as some kind of parliamentary leftism, social democratic style.

I discovered the pleasures of writing about miserable rulers when I took on Herod the Great in my novel, The Man Clothed in Linen.  True, some of them are beyond characterization in their banality (Hitler, curiously enough, was just such a personal nothing when lacking an audience; he was as much a mirror as a man) but the Herods, the Lenins, the Maos, and a host of other power-mongering demons give the writer something to rejoice in: contradictions, pathos, spleen, pride, and self-defeat.  Power is coarsening, the lust for it is coarsening, but men and women who seek it often are riveting.  That's the case in this book.